It Was A Very Good Year

With a New Year approaching I can’t help but think about all the things I haven’t done.  It’s so easy to think of all the things we haven’t accomplished, rather than what we have accomplished.

The grass is always greener in someone else’s lawn.  We can bark and moan about the shows we’re not doing, the jobs we didn’t get and the opportunities we are certain were supposed to be ours.

I could say there was a lot wrong with 2014.  But in all honesty it was a very good year.  There were many things that did happen; there were shows I played and people I got the chance to work with.  With every gig and performance, there were opportunities to hone my skills.

I am certain there have been opportunities like this for all of us.  You gained experience in some aspect, whether personally, professionally or both.  And it may not be in the ways you planned.  As my mother often reminds me, “you know what you get when you don’t get what you want?  Experience.”  There’s plenty of experience to go around.

How often do our plans go as planned?  I set out with goals for 2014.  Some came to fruition and others fell to the wayside.  I think sometimes it’s better to have more goals than less; even if you don’t achieve them all, at least you’ve probably accomplished some of them.  And something is better than nothing, right?

There are so many goals we set for the New Year.  You probably want to work out more, eat better, practice and get better at your skill set.  There are auditions coming up and new jobs to take on.

Sadly some shows are closing.  After the holiday season and ticket sales slow, it’s hard for some productions to continue.  Some are only limited for the holidays season to begin with.

But with a New Year comes the chance to start fresh.  There are friends to reconnect with and projects you’ve been meaning to work on.  Hope you look back on 2014 with fond memories.  I hope it was a very good year.

Looks Like A Duck, Quacks Like A Duck

It’s a duck.  Ducks are great; they glide along the water’s surface, smoothly going about their business.  You don’t see their webbed feet furiously paddling beneath the surface.

I need to give credit for this post.  My sister, Molly, who assured me I could mention her by name, gave me this analogy to life.  When faced with adversity she responded with: ‘be like a duck.’  My first thought was: ‘you want me to dip my head under the surface.’ No.

You must keep a smooth, calm outward appearance.  No one needs to know what you’re going through emotionally or what is underneath the surface.  This applies to our workplace.  We all have someone or something that can be a source of conflict.  A coworker we are not fond of, or a boss or employee who is determined to make our lives more difficult.  Be like the duck.

There are so many instances like this in theatre, where I find myself tempted to lash out.  Mild mannered as I try to be, I’m as guilty as the next person of wanting to scream and cuss and throw things.  Unfortunately that sort of behavior is not appropriate for a music director.  Oh well.

I’ve had to be a duck a lot.  When there are directors panicking about the staging, when a choreographer is having an anxiety attack about whether or not his work is any good, and the diva of the show has announced in full voice she has laryngitis, and therefore will not be singing at the matinee, I must keep my nerves and emotions under water.  I must glide along seemingly unaffected.

People can smell fear.  Musicians who are following a conductor can tell if the conductor is nervous or not, if the conductor lets his/her feelings show.  I was having a good vent-fest on the phone with my sister one day, as I often do (thanks, Molly) and she reminded me: “Be like a duck.” It won’t help me to freak out or scream at the diva, as much as that would immediately make me feel better.

The emotions have to be compartmentalized.  We can’t let every emotion we have at work take over.  In theatre there are a lot of emotional people (surprise, surprise) and we are constantly having to express, emote, show feelings in performance, or not.  People argue, there are deaths in the families of people in the show, and people fall in love and break up.  There are so many things going on at once, and when you’re in a management position on a creative team for a show, you’ve got to keep your shit together, for lack of a better term.

At the end of the day, the show must go on.  We may not always agree or even like each other; but whatever happens, be like the duck.  Keep calm and paddle on.

License and Orchestration, Please

When you want to put on a show you need to license it from a licensing company.  There are several in New York: Music Theatre, International, Rodgers and Hammerstein, Samuel French, etc.  These places offer the scripts and scores for the production.  After a show is published, the authors and/or producers want to get it licensed, and then hopefully get their share of the royalties when the show is licensed.  it’s been said Oklahoma is done at least once a day, everyday, somewhere in the US.  Some royalties.

I spoke with a representative at a licensing house regarding a production I was music directing.  The score I was given was in bad shape: The orchestra books had hand written markings, and in some cases there were full pages scratched out with a marker.  Really?  This was the score that was going out for productions around the country?  I remember another score I was given that was not only hand written (which is not uncommon in old scores), but the hand writing was so inconsistent I couldn’t decipher the intervals in the chords.

Why is this?  Have you ever seen this in your production of a licensed show?  The representative I spoke with about the first show I mentioned gave me some insights.  First he said that the licensing house merely sends out the materials the authors give them.  They don’t have the staff nor the resources to clean up or alter the materials.  They are not allowed to change the orchestrations or update them.  They facilitate getting the script and scores to your local high school, community or regional theatre.

In the case of this show, which shall not be mentioned, the representative said the authors were quick to send the materials.  Whenever materials are prepared and sent, it’s usually at the expense of the writers.  It’s commercial theatre; we’re all in it to make money.  Cleaning up orchestrations and preparing scores seems to fall to the bottom of the list of priorities.  And after writers have gotten their show on Broadway or Off-Broadway, there is little money left to pay someone to clean up all the changes made during the production.

Many times orchestrations are overwritten.  There are so many notes thrown on the page that as the show goes on, notes get circled out, meaning they are not to be played.  When the show closes and the charts are given to the licensing house to be distributed for production, they are simply scanned or copied.  No changes are made to them.  In this case, the scores had many of these markings: parts circled out, sections with ‘Tacet’ written over them, again meaning they are not to be played.

As much as I wanted to ask why this was the case, I already knew the answer.  No one wants to take the time or pay for the time to fix the parts.  The shows still get done because there are enough theatres out in the world that want to put on these shows.  It’s not really possible to point a finger at any one person and blame them for the poor shape of the scores.  It’s just the case of putting on a show.

To that end, it is the ability of the players in the orchestra to make sense of these scores.  I have to trust my players that they have the good sense to figure out how to make their part of the orchestration sound great.

The representative at the licensing house was very helpful.  He understood where I was coming from, but there was nothing to be done about it.  I had hoped there would be cleaner scores, or updated scores they could send out, but what I was was the only copy they had to give.

So, my thanks to musicians who make sense out of the chicken scratch that are the orchestrations.  My hope for future orchestrators and composers is that the parts are clean and clear for future productions.  After all, it is what we are given to represent the writers’ and their efforts in telling the story.

I Got The Power

Once I was told by an actor that I have no real power.  While it felt like a slap in the face I realized she was absolutely right; I have no control over the actors or the production, or anything really.  I conduct musicals and make gestures for others to follow.  If they do not follow, I’m not really leading.

That all might not be totally fair to my role as a music director.  I have some control I suppose.  But it struck me that she had a point; when do we have real power?

I was recently watching “Game Of Thrones.”  I’m fascinated by the number of characters in constant power struggles.  One character gave a riddle to another: “A king, a sell-sword, and a rich man were all in the room.  Who has the real power?”  Several answers were given.  The answer for the character was: whoever the other two thought had the power.  Power is ineffable; we cannot touch it or quantify it.  It’s based purely on confidence and opinion.

I wanted to exercise any power I thought had over this actor.  I wanted to raise her songs up three steps and play them twice too fast.  Well, that wouldn’t really be wise on my part and wouldn’t really solve the question.  The minute I tried to do anything in response to her, I would truly be powerless.  It’s that paradox of acting with power shows no power at all, remaining stoic and unaffected retains some sense of control.

I’m reminded of another scene from Hamlet.  Polonius gives advice to his son, Laertes, “Give every man thine ear, but few thy voice.”  Save your opinion.  Hard to do in the face of other people making bold statements to your face, but there it is.

After all the things I wanted to say and do to this person, I realized it had nothing to do with me.  Perhaps she was working out her own feelings of helplessness; or maybe I was an easy target.  People often mistake kindness for weakness.  And people shoot their mouths off looking to start a fight, or get a rise out of you.

I remained calm and did not react to this actor.  I found it ironic, that an actor reminded me of this lack of power; I played her audition for the show and will most likely music direct her in something again.  None of us work in a vacuum.  We all should be mindful of what we say and do; we will all be working together again soon.


Repetitive Show Syndrome.  Not Really Simple Syndication.  It’s a common occurrence: you get a show that runs for a while and it feels great.  You’ve finally gotten that role, that track, that song that you love.  After a few months, or even a few weeks it starts to feel old.  It starts to feel like the moments are getting stale: why isn’t the audience laughing as loudly at this moment?  Why is the applause not getting louder?

I’ve noticed in the run of a show, performers start changing their performances.  Actors add lines, dancers embellish their dances and musicians play faster.  This is all part of RSS.  You’ve performed in this show a hundred times, so what would it hurt if you went a little faster and just got through it?  You’ve done it all before.

Shows are set for a reason.  Movement, lights, staging, are all set for a reason.  As an actor you are unaware of how many elements depend on you doing your performance the same every night.  Yes, it’s live theatre.  Yes, you need to be creative and live the part.  Blah, blah, blah.  At the end of the day, the production team needs you to hit your mark and stand in your light.  At the end of the day the conductor needs you to breathe in the same spots consistently so he can lead the orchestra in to the next phrase.

Sounds rigid?  In some ways it is.  How can you be creative with so many restrictions on your creativity?  You’re an artist.  But unless it’s a one man show, or your club act, chances are you’re part of an ensemble.  other people are counting on you to hit your mark and say your lines, so they can say their lines, and hit their marks.

Once, when an actor started changing lines and movement in a show, this actor gave me the excuse: I’m acting.  Well, man, while we don’t want to hamper your creative process, man, like, totally, do your job.   Audiences paid to see the show as it is.  There should be nothing stale or tired if the cast and production team and produce the show people want to see.

A good way to look at this was given to me by a seasoned performer.  She said it’s like taking a boat out on a lake everyday.  You take the boat out, and the wind fills the sails; it’s the same boat and same lake, but the journey  is completely different every time.

Like the boat ride, the show can be the same and yet different every performance.  You wear the same costume, move in the same dances and blocking, yet there are variations every time.  Embrace the regularity of it while appreciating the slight variations.  It’s a fine line; if you find yourself getting bored with your performance, or tired, become more aware of what’s around you.  Challenge yourself to find something different in the show every time.  Keep your performance consistent; you never know who is counting on you.

Back To Basics

It’s the day after Christmas and if you celebrate it, you’re most likely recovering today.  You’re recovering from the eating, drinking, and a long day of catching up with relatives.  Perhaps it’s another long day today of more of the same.

Holidays are a chance to get away from the daily routine.  They’re a time to indulge, to break with any diet or regular food you eat on a regular basis.  You can eat the rich food that is only prepared on holidays.  It was like that for me yesterday; I ate whatever I wanted, and drank a bit as well.  Today I’m back to basics.  Back to eating healthy, regular food.  And a lot of water.

It’s good to break from routine.  But it’s also good to get back to routine.  Get back to basics.  When we practice and rehearse our craft, be it music or dance, there are routines we follow.  There are exercises that keep us in shape and warm us up to get ready to work.

Sometimes we forget the basics.  There are lessons early on in our development we think are better left untouched once we’ve mastered them.  I knew a voice teacher who, once a year, went back to the basic technique she taught her beginner students.  It was the technique that gave them good breathing and support.  It never failed to remind her the best way to perform.

Once we’re out of school we perform and work.  Many colleagues are constantly going from one gig to the next; they are especially busy at the holidays.  Rarely do they pause to reflect on their technique.  There’s no time to; they’re too busy.  Besides, if it’s not broke, don’t fix it.

I recall playing a production of Bye Bye Birdie and working on the dance break in “Put On A Happy Face.”  It is quite possibly one of my favorite musical moments in theatre.  It rotates back and forth from a straight eighth-note feel, to a big band swing.  I wasn’t achieving the clarity in my playing that I wanted.  I pulled out some Bach fugues and worked on the music I was taught in school.  I pulled out the finger exercises and basic technical exercises.

It was as if my fingers woke up.  All of the sudden I could hear the moving lines and counter melodies.  Even when the chords where huge, I could make sense of the notes more than I had before.  Back to basics.

It never hurts to get some technique.  It’s there so you can perform what you want to perform.  I’m not going to perform all the etudes I have, or the Bach fugues, but those pieces of music are far more difficult than the music I do perform; they challenge me and strengthen my fingers and ears, so I am able to maintain a level of excellence in performance.

As for my diet, I will be running in the morning and eating more celery and less chocolate.  Happy Holidays.

All I Want

Every year we have some traditions that don’t change at Christmas.  For me and my family there’s always a lot of church; with both of my parents being ministers, I grew up used to Christmas Eve being very busy.  Thankfully there were and are no services Christmas day.  That said, I’m always involved in the music at the Christmas Eve services.

We all ask the question: what do you want for Christmas?  The older I get, the less I want things, and the more I want to spend time with the people I love.

I know I’ve talked about this before, but generally musicians and other artists are working on the holidays.  When you’re seeing a show or live performance, those performers are working.  Fortunately they’re doing something they love (hopefully), and if it’s a holiday performance, they might make a little more money than usual.

That said, there’s no way to make more time.  You can always make more money in life, but it’s the time that passes that you can’t get more of.  Enjoy the time together; enjoy the holiday.  And if you’re working over the holiday, hopefully the work is something you’re passionate about.  Merry Christmas.

Remember When

I was getting my hair cut the other day when a song came on the sound system.  It immediately took me back to high school; I remember hearing this song at parties and it held a certain nostalgia for me.  Aside from trying to get ready for the holidays, the last-minute shopping or hair cut, I was reminded how music holds meaning for each of us.

Whether you’re a church going person, or just enjoy the random caroling that occurs this time of year, music is everywhere.  Nearly everyone I talk to has a favorite christmas carol, or hymn.  If you’re attending church this evening, you’ll no doubt hear some of your favorite tunes.

I recall growing up and hearing certain turns for the first time.  I think the first time I heard “Carol of the Bells” was in the movie, Home.  Or maybe it was the first time I remember hearing it.  It’s still one of my favorite movies.  You probably have films you watch every year, like White Christmas, or The Charlie Brown Christmas Special.

You might not even be aware of this sense memory.  You’ll hear something and instantly be transported back to another time in your life.

For many musicians this is one of the busiest times of year.  Christmas Eve usually holds one, if not more, services and concerts.  Players jump from gig to gig, church to church, playing familiar songs.   Hopefully you’ll get to hear some great live music.  Have a wonderful Christmas Eve.


To Union or Not Union

That is the question.  When do you join the union?  If you’re an actor, it’s the Actors’ Equity Association, the AEA.  If you’re a musician it’s the Local branch of the American Federation of Musicians, the AFM.  There are many more unions for film actors, technicians, etc; forgive me for not listing them all.

I had an interesting conversation with an actor about this.  She is not in the AEA yet.  She is non-union, as it were.  She, like many of her contemporaries who are non-union, crash equity auditions and try to be seen.  Their hope is to be seen, get cast, and be given their equity card and membership.

She explained what sounds like a vicious circle.  She cannot get an equity card, a membership, until she gets hired under an equity contract.  But she won’t get an equity contract until she gets an equity audition.  And she won’t get an equity audition until she’s an equity member.  And on it goes.  While she and many others are welcome to hang around, hoping there is time to be seen by the casting team, often there is not enough time.

And for some actors staying non-equity is preferable.  Why switch to equity when there is so much non-equity work to be had?  The AEA, as I understand it, is pretty strict about their members taking work; if you join the AEA taking non-equity work is not allowed.  I’ve lost actors in the past to productions we were casting; they turned equity and could no longer do the show.

When you join AEA, you’re in a bigger pool of actors.  You’re in a pool of actors who have been auditioning and performing in equity productions, and are presumably better, more experienced than the non-equity actors you were previously auditioning with.  While this is not true across the board, it is something actors experience when they make the switch.

There also seems to be a big problem in the equity/non-equity debate.  Lately there have been a number of non-equity tours of Broadway shows going out on the road.  While this is creating an uproar in the equity community, plenty of non-equity actors are happy for the work.  And the producing teams are happy to pay wages that are not the union standard.  They also don’t have to follow union rules of hours of work, travel, etc.

Actors’ Equity laments over the non-equity tours going out.  It’s taking away work from their members, and lowering the standard of the productions.  Yet, for many of those non-equity performers, hungry for work, but cannot seem to get a break into the union, they’re happy to take the gig.  So while the tours should be union, there seem to be a larger number of non-equity actors who are ready and able to take the work.

This is partially how it was described to me from a frustrated actor.  And she has a right to be frustrated.  Many of our unions have not updated their policies in decades, or have taken an honest look at what the reality is today.  So much of how shows are done has changed in the past 20 years.

Everybody wants to work.  So the question is: is there more the unions can do to gain members?  And can they maintain their standards while giving opportunities to young performers looking to get experience and be paid a wage that is supported and protected by the unions?  I would very much like to get more perspectives on the issue; if you have a viewpoint on this matter I’d love to hear it.

So Far Away

At this busy time of year we’re either together with the ones we love, or far apart.  If you’re out seeing a musical or concert, the people on stage are working.  And if they’re in a holiday show, they are working through the holidays.  This keeps them from traveling home to be with family.

I think just about everyone in the performing arts has dealt what long distance relationships.  And in the business world I see it too.

The more people I talk to in the industry, the more I see it.  You meet on tour, or a regional production.  You find so much in common: similar profession, similar taste in art, music, literature.

Or what also happens is one of you gets a job in another state or country.  When we are all so driven at what we do professionally, it makes the personal life a bit harder to maintain.  And this is not exclusive to the environment in New York, but it’s extremely prevalent.

I believe that everyone in New York is driven.  Unless you’re independently wealthy, you have to work to live.  And so many of us are drawn to the big apple pie because of the energy and the pulse.  There’s a very good reason why it get’s the reputation of a lonely town: it is.  It’s hard to connect with people when everyone’s life is the most important thing in their… life.  Their work, their career, and where they are in the world makes everything about their time matter.

So when you find someone you can actually have a good conversation with, or spend time with on a personal level, they’re worth holding on to.  Even when they live on the other coast or across the pond.  How do we make that work?  Thankfully we have all kinds of technologies that allow us to stay in touch.  You can Skype over dinner breaks, and text on a regular basis.  Gone are the days of romantic letter writing, but even that can be a nice break from the Facebook chatting.

I have this friend.  And when I say ‘friend,’ I truly mean ‘friend’; I did not make him up.  He is now in the midst of a long distance relationship that just started.  His boyfriend just booked a national tour. It’s exciting and daunting at the same time.  They’ve been seeing each other for only a few months, but they want to make it work; he’s traveled every other week to see his boyfriend.  They’ve split the cost of plane tickets and have discussed all the intimate details of their relationship, and what the distance means for them.

Sometimes the distance helps the relationship.  With all the heartache that goes into missing the other person, it can force the conversation.  “Where do you see this going?” is always a good one.  I think most performers in particular are focused, driven people.  They don’t want to waste time with someone who isn’t really interested in them, especially when they are pining away for them in another zip code.

There is a great deal of trust that goes into a long distance relationship.  There’s also a end-date, hopefully, on the distance portion of the relationship; there’s a time when the couple can be back together, in the same place.  And for some people the distance is great; it gives them their space and time apart.  When they get back together, it’s like a honeymoon period all over again.

To my friends out there who haven’t experienced this yet: you will.  It’s not good or bad, it just comes with the terrain.  As we make our careers work and our lives make sense (or not), it’s important to find meaningful relationships.  Sometimes that means being apart.  After all, if we truly care for one another, we hopefully can understand the passion that drives the other person.  Their passion and energy for what they love to do is what we find so attractive.  It’s also what can make them go so far away.